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What You Need to Know To Be A Socialist in College

An Invitation from the Dartmouth YDSA

Sept 5, 2021

By Kaya Ço

 

What is socialism? 

 

Socialism is, above all, the name of the international workers’ movement. The international workers’ movement is a resurgent project: it has returned in renewed strength after the historic defeat of the global working class towards the end of the 20th century by a consolidation of reactionary forces often subsumed under the general term “neoliberalism.” The general collapse of socialist states worldwide was matched by a thorough and forced excision of socialist forces from political life, and until the contradictions of capitalism surfaced once again in grave economic, political, racial and ecological crises in the 2000s, socialism in most places was consigned to survival in marginal positions. No longer is this the case. From Bolivia to Nepal, Nigeria to the US, the working class worldwide is rebuilding its bases and regathering its forces towards a better world. As peoples everywhere face climate emergencies and increasingly dire conditions of life, socialism reminds us all that it is back. 

 

Secondly, socialism is the name of the world that the international workers’ movement envisions. The movement has discovered in its earliest years that the nature of capitalism necessitates the continuous and ever-expanding exploitation of the fruits of workers’ labor. Workers create value, a part of which is returned to them in the form of wages, and another which is expropriated by bosses in the form of profits. The drive to increase profits is a fundamental tendency of capital, which leads on the one hand to increasing productivity and an increasing mass of goods produced, and on the other, to an ever-widening wealth gap between the working and exploiting classes, the toils of imperialism, economic crises that shake off millions from a chance at a good life, a reckless and fatal plunder of natural resources, war, conflicts, and an overall impoverishment of culture. 

 

The socialist thesis is hence the possibility of another world, one which is not dependent on the ever-expanding exploitation of people and nature, and one in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all. This other world goes by many names, the most memorable of which has been communism.

 

The international workers’ movement, through its centuries-old history, has struggled in many different ways to break through the capitalist world system and usher in a socialist era. It has failed to do this, insofar as it has been defeated in class struggle—a failure which is transmuted in the prevailing anti-communist rhetoric to an inherent one: that “communism is bound to failure due to human or economic nature.” A scientific analysis understands that the stage of world history is not one which tests by rational measure several economic systems proposed by rational agents, but that it is a battleground in which classes and groups fight to assert their will. 

 

Socialists today understand that problems that our age poses to us are those that require an urgent response: not through the limited and cosmetic options that capitalism offers, but through the revolutionary arsenal that socialism will provide. Our struggle, in essence, is quite straightforward. In the words of the legendary Irish leader James Connelly, “For our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth.”

 

What does it mean to be a socialist in college?

 

A socialist who does not organize is not a socialist. This stems from the very definition of being a socialist: a socialist is a member of the international workers’ movement. Che once remarked that it was up to the psychoanalysts to determine exactly what made one a socialist, and that what concerned us was the interrelationship between the socialist and the movement. Following him, we will say that one does not suddenly transform into a socialist, but becomes a socialist through embedding oneself into collective, organized struggle. Without doing this, one cannot truly grasp what it means to be a socialist. But struggle always already exists: it is everywhere around us. So it seems impossible for one to not be “embedded” in struggle. But socialists know that living under the effects of struggle is not enough. To become a socialist, one must struggle. 

 

Thus wherever a socialist is, a socialist struggles. A socialist student is no different. As students, we are embedded in a system of social relations that make up Dartmouth College. Our involvement with it is not limited to the classroom and the ideological/scientific relations characteristic of it. Dartmouth is also made up of economic relations, which we might say as a general principle, are the most important relations (why this is so warrants a historiography of the financialization of American universities, but how it is so will become clearer in the coming section). Let us, then, move from the innermost core to the outermost. This allows us to grasp the College and the struggles in which we are involved in better. While we will try to provide as accurate an analysis as possible, the length and nature of this introductory document can lead to us taking certain practical shortcuts. For that, we wish to be excused. 

 

How does Dartmouth work?

 

We begin from the most fundamental point. Dartmouth administrators and the Board of Trustees listen, in the last instance, to the beating financial heart of this institution: the endowment. The endowment is essentially a mass of finance capital invested in a wide variety of positions. It is a complex entity, and it is crisscrossed by contradictions that are constitutive of our society—for instance, it is thoroughly racialized and ecologically disastrous. The management of the endowment brings with it a whole set of financialized practices, which preaches a generalized austerity. This means that Dartmouth policy-making prioritizes the general integrity of the endowment and its constant growth over sustainable investments toward campus life. Often, analyses (like this one made by the Dartmouth YDSA) yield the rather pleasant understanding that Dartmouth accumulates capital for the sake of it, not, as the college ideology preaches, for the community. If it so happens that this allows for new (non-housing) buildings, that is a nice side addition. 

The management of the endowment connects financial relations to practices that make up Dartmouth as a university. Administration is naturally at the head of this connection. The make-up of the Admin includes everyone from office clerks to the Chief Financial Officer and President Hanlon himself. While different offices sustain relations of relative autonomy vis-à-vis each other (they can take certain decisions on their own: for instance, OPAL is not immediately bound to the President’s Office in all of their work), they are nevertheless united in organizational practices and an administrative ideology which glues them all together. 

 

The Division of Finance & Administration (DFA), which includes the Executive Vice President, the CFO, the CHRO (Scot Bemis, who notoriously led HR operations of the US army during its invasion of Iraq in the 2000s) and other senior leaders is the first step from the endowment to campus practices. The Department of Safety and Security (“SNS”), Dartmouth’s internal policing force, which it uses to harass and intimidate student activists, is also, interestingly, collected under this Division. It is safe to say that the DFA is the “iron core” of Dartmouth. We can only target these sections for change and reform once we have garnered enough power to affect change and reform in other sections—and naturally, only once we have garnered enough power to face these sections can we begin conversation on the endowment; see, for instance, the anti-apartheid activism of the 80s. This is not a chronological order, but simply one of power. 

 

Then we move towards those offices that are more “involved” with student activities. The “Diversity and Inclusion” offices (including the Title IX office), the Dean of the College, Admissions and Financial Aid, Dartmouth Centers, Libraries, Residential & Student Life, Health Services, etc. These offices engage with students on a daily basis, and more often than not activists are able to “sit down” with officers from these sections to deliver concerns. This, however, does not mean that they are any more open for student struggle than the DFA. They as well, in the last instance, subscribe to the same administrative practices and ideology. The fact that they are willing to “sit down” serves primarily a strategic purpose: more often than not, student engagement with these offices channel liberatory energy and rightful anger into drawn-out bureaucratic processes and empty promises, adjusting the tempo of the student movement to that of a salaried office and damming up the further escalation of student dissent. This is why, in student movements across the country, experienced activists advocate to do it “all in the open”: as a principle, socialists must embrace that no meeting with the administration should ever take place behind closed doors. As a plus, this also ensures that no one in the movement feels left out, or cut off from some important development taking place elsewhere. Finally, this is the most critical point that distinguishes socialist activism from a student liberalism that manifests itself in, for instance, the Student Assembly—a brilliant article on one of which you can find in this issue

 

The Board of Trustees maintains an interesting relation to the administration, in that as the highest decision-making body of the College, it is almost completely cut off from campus struggle. It is near-totally opaque, and, unlike the administration, which draws ire and is an important rallying point due to its exposure to the campus student population, thus rarely appears in discussions of accountability. Recently, the Student Assembly announced that two students would serve in a committee that merely reports to the Board of Trustees. As Dartmouth socialists, we do not believe that this is a development that changes anything. Although this critique can be extended to all forms of representation, the successful initiative of Cornell students which resulted in students actually being placed on the board itself is something that would be beneficial for building power—granted that the students are experienced, community-answerable activists.

 

To sum up, until proven otherwise, all administrators, from the most arbitrary bureaucrats to the very top officers who make millions, work to perpetuate the college as is. 

 

From the administration, we move towards the academy: this includes professors, post-grads, fellows, lecturers and others whose primary duty is to carry out ideological and scientific work. While the delightful self-perception of academia is to portray itself as free sanctuaries of thought and reflection, socialists do not forget that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” This is not a conspiratorial statement: we do not say that academics consciously conspire to abide by the conceptual arsenal of the ruling classes, rationally seeking one type of profit or the other, but rather, that they follow the dominant ideology all by themselves. Of course, we should not overlook the influence of capital on research output: faculty who are most able to draw funds are often promoted to the most senior positions, and faculty who are most able to draw funds are those who work in fields dearest to capital. So it is no surprise that when push comes to shove, it is departments like Music that are cut first. This often comes to mean that those academics who work in less funded, historically less conservative fields have a higher chance of being involved, to a certain extent, with student movements. 

 

However, it is fair to say that at Dartmouth College, almost all classes you take will either ignore or present with the most serious mockery the intellectual and political produce of the international workers’ movement. Even in exceptional cases, where care is applied, this does not suffice. It is not enough to simply read Karl Marx, one must read Karl Marx in a certain manner, within the international workers’ movement, as it is expressed on campus. This foreshadows our invitation.

 

The best academics make uneasy allies to the student movement. The worst academics actively serve as watchdogs for far-right organizations surveilling student activists. So once again, until proven otherwise, all academics, from the most reactionary to the most radical, work to perpetuate the college as is. 

 

Also found in academia is the graduate worker population. Although their number at Dartmouth is relatively small compared to other Ivies, they are a severely exploited and under-compensated labor population. It is no surprise that around the country, student worker unionization movements have been spearheaded by graduate workers. They often get the worst of Dartmouth’s provisions, and recently, the housing crisis in Hanover and the Upper Valley has been affecting them severely. Along with Dartmouth service workers and student workers, graduate workers make up the most severely exploited workforce on campus. 

 

This connects us to another locus of exploitation on campus, productive labor: without getting into the theoretical discussion surrounding the concept, we may simply have this term denote people who work on the Dartmouth campus and are not administrators nor faculty. It includes carpenters, painters, DDS (Dartmouth Dining Services) workers, certain library workers, janitors, and other service people. These workers essentially perform labor that reproduces structures that make up campus life. They are, as are all workers under capitalism, exploited, whereby the fruits of their labor are taken from them as profits. In the case of service workers, this might be obfuscated by the fact that they are not paid directly for work, but instead, the college seems to be paying for the service provided in kind. The customer is not the college, however, but the students and/or their families: the college is the capitalist that employs the service workers and pays them wages, taking a portion of the value realized in tuition as profits. 

 

A certain number of productive laborers on campus are represented by the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union, or the SEIU 560. The SEIU has historically been a strong union with a progressive tendency—they broke with the national office of the SEIU to endorse Bernie Sanders in the 2016 elections. Organized workers are our backbones, and we are their allies, and it is our duty as socialist students to be of as much support to them as possible in their struggle for a just workplace. Dartmouth wages class struggle against its laborers and the union, as well as those workers who are not represented by the union and are thus in an especially precarious position. In the last couple of years, Dartmouth has utilized this contradiction in the workplace (permanent and unionized vs. temporary and nonunionized) to diminish the power of organized labor on campus. Furthermore, the presence of student workers as a middle demographic complicates these matters, whereby student workers provide the college with a cheap and no-strings-attached labor force, as well as allow it to avoid hiring more full-time workers. It is thus absolutely critical for students to organize with ALL aspects of productive labor on campus. 

 

From there, it appears that we might be moving towards students as occupying the position of customers. This is true to a certain extent, but does not encompass the whole reality. Students are not students only to the extent that they pay, but also to the extent that they study—in other words, occupy a certain position in the scholastic ideological apparatus. A classic if not functionalist definition of the position students occupy would be that in the Ivy League, students are “raised” (connected and familiarized with & positioned within certain practices) to take up important positions of power in finance, technology, “business,” government and academia. 

 

An analysis of practices of the College inevitably must deal with this “function”, but not all developments that occur in the College can be explained solely by this. “What Dartmouth does” must not be confused with “what Dartmouth is.” For the latter, we must understand that Dartmouth connects to the society-at-large in many ways. The Greek system is in many ways a sub-apparatus of sorts that “socializes” one to such industries and networks of power, but in keeping with the nature of such industries and networks of power, as well as the nature of the College, they are often sexist, anti-Black and anti-Indigenous spaces. The housing crisis connects not only to Dartmouth’s austerity policies, but also wider urban and rural issues plaguing the Upper Valley region. In essence, as socialist students, when we look at issues that concern us and contradictions that arise from practices that make up Dartmouth, we also look at the connections they have to the capitalist society. 

 

When Dartmouth looks at issues that arise from its contradictions (which includes societal ones on which it is built), it sees things to “manage”. Managing means making sure things go on as they do normally: reproducing existing social relations. We know that this does not mean resolving these contradictions, it often simply means excising them, casting them off, delaying them, and suppressing them. For instance, the forced leave that is imposed on those of us who suffer from mental illness is a way of “management” whereby the problem is sent away from the college, and thus ceases to be its problem. As socialists, we understand that these are not solutions, but we also have no illusions as to what the real solution is. We should have no reservations in stating, for instance, that mental illness, to the extent that there is a social side to it, is not solely “caused” by the educational institution. There are many different social realities through which we live our lives: family, friendships, religion, gender, race, class, geography… Hence our statement is not, in liberal technocratic fashion, that Dartmouth could have “managed” problems of mental health better. It certainly could, but we are not socialists insofar as we recognize that it could, but insofar as we recognize that the society in which Dartmouth must act to preserve itself consigns it to simply “managing” mental illness. 

 

 

The careful reader will have understood by now what we are coming at here. Being embedded in socialist struggles in college, hence being a socialist in college, requires us to go beyond simple solutions. We recognize, when we situate ourselves in struggle, that we are already positioned in a wider struggle that extends outwards, beyond Dartmouth, even beyond the borders of the US. When we are talking of housing, we are already talking of Upper Valley and a wider nationwide housing problem; when we are talking of Greek Life, we are already talking of race and the patriarchy; when we are talking of mental health, we are already talking of the nuclear family; when we are talking of anything, we are already talking of the endowment, and hence we are already talking of financialization, and hence we are already talking of racial capitalism. Once again, our demands most moderate are, for we only want the earth. 

 

This does not mean that our struggle is futile; on the contrary, it is the struggle, and the permanence of that struggle, that counts. We fight for reforms and do mutual aid, and it is good that we make the lives of our peers and workers better through them, but we do not take these actions to cover up for the failures of Dartmouth and capitalism, but rather to expose them. In his Selected Writings, Franco Basaglia summarizes the socialist ethic very succinctly: 

 

When you point out contradictions you are opening up a crack. For example, when we demonstrate that psychiatric institutions only exist as an apparatus of social control, the State is forced to create something else to replace it. From the time when the contradiction first explodes into consciousness to the time when it is inevitably covered up, there is a moment, a chance for people to realize that the health system does not correspond to their needs because society itself is not organized to meet those needs.

 

Finally, this connects to one key lesson: we must have no illusions as to what we can achieve on our own. Students cannot usher in a better world insofar as they are students, but they certainly can help do so as socialists. As socialists, we are members of the international workers’ movement. This means that we have comrades all around the world, at every corner of the world, from the most urban to the most rural, all united in struggle. A socialist student understands this, and so a socialist organizes succinctly.

 

Currently, on campus, there is an organization that embraces this philosophy: that if we are to achieve what we want, we need to organize in a very holistic way. The Dartmouth chapter of YDSA (Young Democratic Socialists of America, the youth branch of Democratic Socialists of America) is the only openly socialist organization on campus, and the only one which organizes according to these principles. It is not surprising that it was founded after letdowns surrounding earlier student campaigns and as a response to the onslaught of austerity that students faced last year. Its guiding philosophy is three-pronged: (1) it agitates to bring back the resurgent project of socialism to Dartmouth and construct a political center for the campus left. (2) It practices solidarity with other campus and community groups that are fighting for justice and liberation. (3) It builds a mass coalition capable of mobilizing for student and worker power. Concretely, since its founding this past May, Dartmouth YDSA has led efforts to bring back the Dartmouth Radical and made the first steps towards constructing a Labor Coalition that bridges together the workers of Dartmouth: service, student, and graduate. 

Nationwide, YDSA chapters have been on the forefront of campus organizing, from labor issues to abolition, and the DSA is the largest vehicle of socialism in the United States. It is a multi-tendency organization, which means that it embraces a wide variety of views, and so do we. A socialist ethic operates under an ethic of camaraderie: we recognize that at the end of every day, socialists end up on the same path, organizing against capitalist barbarity. In short, as a socialist student, YDSA is your home at Dartmouth. This is your official invitation to join the struggle for the better day. Venceremos

The Dartmouth Radical